Who am I? Montaigne & Self-Awareness
By Shlomo Maital
Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, b. 1533, d. 1592, a short 59-year life. He wrote thoughtful essays that investigated his own thoughts, and personality.
Writing in his New York Times column, David Brooks tackles Montaigne, along with another great essayist, Samuel Johnson. I doubt there is another columnist alive who would dare to make a column out of two authors who have been dead for hundreds of years. As a high school French student in Regina, Canada, I once impetuously wrote an essay on Montaigne – but the truth is, I didn’t understand a word of what he wrote.
Brooks quotes Montaigne: “If others examined themselves attentively as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, but those who are aware of it are a little better off.”
In others words, as Nietzsche counselled, “become who you are”. But first, understand who you are.
I teach young people in many countries. Increasingly I find that Generation Y, those born after 1980, lack an understanding of who they really are, and what their passions are. The reason seems to be the connectedness of the smartphone. Why bother to know what you really think, if you can ask others instantly? If you are permanently instantly linked to others, how can you ever build self-awareness, when your own self disappears in the swamp of ‘connected socially-networked others’? How can you become who you are, if you do not ever really know who you are?
There is a kind of serenity that comes with self-awareness. I deeply regret that many troubled people I encounter never achieve that serenity. It starts with recognizing our own faults, our own flawed character. If you are constantly looking outward, at what others are tweeting and posting, you will never have time and space to look inward. And that’s a real shame.